Leoannie Binas-Semana, 30, of San Francisco, and Aylene Semana, 28, of Milpitas, were with their husbands on a cliff in the area of Bonny Doon Beach off of state Highway 1, sheriff's Sgt. Patrick Dimick said.
A warden from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and a ranger from the state Department of Parks and Recreation spotted the group and asked the men, who are brothers, to show their fishing licenses, Dimick said.
As one of the men started walking farther up the cliff to get his license, a large wave hit the rocks below and knocked the two women into the ocean around 3:30 p.m., Dimick said.
The ranger and warden, who were still nearby, saw the women floating in the water, Dimick said.
Both husbands jumped into the ocean to try to save their wives but they were pushed back by waves, Dimick said.
He said the water in that spot is extremely treacherous, especially as it shifts from low to high tide in the afternoon.
"It takes people out quickly," Dimick said. "The power of the ocean is amazingly strong out there."
The ranger made an emergency call for assistance, and a U.S. Coast Guard rescue boat, a boat from the Santa Cruz Harbor Patrol and rescue personnel from the state parks department were dispatched to the area, Dimick said.
The U.S. Coast Guard in San Francisco, where rescue helicopters for the area are based, was notified at about 3:48 p.m., according to a Coast Guard dispatcher.
The two men ended up trapped on a rock outcropping, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jake Hess said.
The Coast Guard sent over a helicopter and lowered a rescue basket to pick the two men up one by one and carry them to shore, Coast Guard Chief Mike Lutz said.
The men were treated by emergency medical responders at the scene, Hess said.
"They looked like they were dealing with exposure issues," Hess said. "We're just feeling for them. It's very much a tragic call."
State park lifeguards, the Santa Cruz Harbor Patrol and Coast Guard working together recovered the bodies of the two women about an hour after they fell into the ocean, Dimick said.